Sunday, November 17, 2013

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

And beneath Cornwall, beyond and beneath this whole realm of England, beneath the sodden marches of Wales and the rough territory of the Scots border, there is another landscape; there is a buried empire, where he fears his commissioners cannot reach.  Who will swear the hobs and bogarts who lie in the hedges and in hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods?  Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug into unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover in winter around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones?  For they too are his countrymen: the generations of the uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar who feed on living England, and suck the substance from the future.

In Ford Madox Ford's The Fifth Queen, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief advisor, is a shrewd, conniving man who works tirelessly to discredit and destroy Catholics in England.  In Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Cromwell is equally shrewd and cunning, but with a golden heart to boot.  Ford’s Cromwell is a self-serving Machiavel; Mantel’s grieves for his dead wife and children, serves his king out of loyalty and perhaps love, and feels remorse for Thomas More’s public execution.

Unfortunately, Mantel’s Cromwell is also pretty dull.  She works hard to rehabilitate his image, but why?  Why, for instance, does Mantel feel the need to provide for Cromwell no fewer than four different “son” characters to act out his fatherly wisdom on?  Why do we need to know that he had an abusive father?  Ford’s vision of Cromwell makes sense in light of his Catholic dogmatism, but what is it that Mantel wants to say about the Reformation, or God, or human beings?  Maybe there are answers to these questions, but the book is such a muddle that it hardly seems worth trying to pry them out.  (The passage I quoted above is, I think, one really nice exception to that muddle-ness.)

Part of what makes Wolf Hall such a difficult experience is its insistence on historical completeness.  The bare bones of Cromwell’s story are pretty fascinating: His intimacy with his predecessor, Cardinal Wolsey, hounded out of office by Henry for failure to procure a divorce from Catherine of Aragon.  His role in the break from Rome and the establishment of Anne Boleyn as queen.  His struggle with More over the Oath of Succession, and the hand he has in his execution.  But these moments get lost in a torrent of historical minutiae and a superflux of historical characters.  The cast is so enormous that Mantel provides a reference table in the front in case you forget who is Thomas Wolsey and who is Thomas Wriothesley and who is Thomas Audley.  (Also, cracking jokes about how the world seems to be made up of people named Thomas doesn’t make it any clearer.)  I understand the rationale behind being faithful to history, but this is a novel, and not a textbook; so many of these people occupy such similar niches that deciphering the plot can be maddening.  Mantel’s writing is accomplished, but trying to differentiate all these characters through voice and description is a task only Shakespeare or Dickens could tackle.

So there’s six hundred pages of that, and then you realize: There are two sequels.  This story’s only a third of the way done!  Who, outside of the most devoted early modernist, has the energy to pick up the next novel, Bringing Up the Bodies, after making it through Wolf Hall?  Not I.  Which is a shame, because like a lot of people, I think the story of Henry VIII’s life is fascinating.  Maybe I’ll just start watching The Tudors instead.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise

Heloise went on to the risks I should run in bringing her back, and argued that the name of friend [amica] instead of wife would be dearer to her and more honourable for me--only love freely given should keep me for her, not the constriction of a marriage tie, and if we had to be parted for a time, we should find the joy of being together all the sweeter the rarer our meetings were.  But at last she saw that her attempts to persuade or dissuade me were making no impression on my foolish obstinacy, and she could not bear to offend me; so amidst deep sighs and tears she ended in these words: 'We shall both be destroyed.  All that is left us is suffering as great as our love has been.'  In this, as the whole world knows, she showed herself a true prophet.

It used to be that Abelard and Heloise were as famous as Romeo and Juliet as paragons of doomed love.  I guess that we prefer our love stories to be secular ones these days, but that's a shame, because the story of these two is so shocking and heartbreaking that it's hard to believe that it is true, and that we are fortunate enough to have these letters that passed between them.

Abelard begins by recounting the story of his life in a document called the Historia Calamitatum: The History of My Calamities.  He tells of how he was once a famous philosopher and logician, renowned but arrogant.  He carries on an affair with a young girl named Heloise, who became pregnant.  They marry in secret, and he hides her away in a convent, but her family, incensed at the scandal, breaks into his room late one night and castrates him.  Humiliated and disgraced, his disfigurement causes him to devote his life to Christ, and he becomes a monk.

Heloise, now a nun and a renowned writer in her own right, reads the Historia Calamitatum and writes a letter to her estranged husband, whom she has not seen in years.  What follows is a series of letters between the two, reflecting on what they have lost, each trying--and often, it seems, failing--to find solace in their religious communities and duties.  Heloise's letters are amazingly raw, and give a portrait of a woman still heartbroken over the loss of Abelard:

You know, beloved, as everyone knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you... God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself; I wanted simply you, nothing of yours.  I looked for no marriage-bond, no marriage portion, and it was not my own pleasures and wishes I sought to gratify, as you well know, but yours... God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.

Years later, Heloise confesses that she still yearns for Abelard sexually, that she cannot repent of their actions because she still wants to possess him in a way that is no longer physically possible:

Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold on my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on my prayers.  I should be groaning over the sins that I have committed, but I can only sigh for what I have lost.  Everything we did and also the times and places where we did it are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live through them all again with you.  Even in sleep I know no respite.

In turn, Abelard tries to make Heloise see their sufferings as a gift.  He has come to see his disfigurement as a blessing:

And so it was wholly just and merciful, although by means of the supreme treachery of your uncle, for me to be reduced in that part of my body was the seat of lust and sole reason for those desires, so that I could increase in many ways; in order that his member should justly be punished for all its wrongdoing in us, expiate in suffering the sins committed for its amusement and cut me off from the slough of filth in which I had been wholly immersed in mind as in body.

It's startlingly strange to be able to pry into the intimate lives of two people who lived 900 years ago and see how profound their suffering is.  The later letters are considerably duller, as they concern Abelard's prescription of a rule for nuns (like the Benedictine rule that governs monks) at Heloise's request, but it is certainly more interesting with the subtext of their long and bitter history.

Abelard died first, and legend has it that when Heloise died, they opened up his tomb so that they could place her body in it, and his skeleton reached out and embraced her.  Your move, Shakespeare.

Roundup (Me, desperately trying to catch up)

The Life-Partner of Frankenstein by Batton Lash

"From what I heard, the county clerk was rendered speechless . . . He had never before seen people like these before . . . A strange pair who only wanted the same benefits and recognition that the state gives to any 'normal . . . .'"

Batton Lash has written an entire comic series about Alanna Wolff and Jeff Byrd, counselors of the macabre.  They are attorneys who represent supernatural creatures (one might even say, creatures of the night).  In this adventure, Wolff and Byrd represent Frankenstein and Lady Frankenstein, who want to get married.  The townsfolk (complete with pitchforks and torches), believe that such a marriage would be an (gasp!) abomination.  This is an extremely subtle metaphor for gay marriage.  So subtle, in fact, that I almost missed it during my first reading.

Not really.  To be fair, Lash is not trying to be subtle.  The comic is full of the most obvious criticisms of arguments against gay marriage (including the scene where the heterosexual, married couple is depicted as being unhappily married).  By the end, Frankenstein and his bride, Freda are given the right to be married.  Everyone lives happily ever after.

All in all, a fun, quick read.  

The Time-Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

“Clare, I want to tell you, again, I love you. Our love has been the thread through the labyrinth, the net under the high-wire walker, the only real thing in this strange life of mine that I could ever trust. Tonight I feel that my love for you has more density in this world than I do, myself: as though it could linger on after me and surround you, keep you, hold you.” 

I was expecting this book to be a tacky romance.  I was only partly right.  Niffenegger's playing with non-linear narrative works well: we get non-chronological puzzle pieces at different points in the novel and it is only in later parts of the book that we see where the pieces fit.  This adds a level of complexity to the novel that makes it a better novel.  My favorite aspect of this novel was the impending sense of doom that Niffenegger hints at early on.  We know for a long time that something bad is going to happen; we watch as the protagonists know too.

William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope by Ian Doescher

The desp'rate hour is now upon us--please,
I beg thee, Sir.  O help me, Obi-Wan
Kenobi, help.  Thou art mine only hope.

Every now and again someone has a simple but brilliant idea.  An idea that really should have occurred to someone long, long ago, but, alas, has not.  Ian Doescher has done a favor to humanity by having, and executing, a much needed idea.  So, now we have, Shakespeare's Star Wars.  Same story, now with more Shakespearean iambic pentameter.  We are a better society, now.

Substantively: the book is well executed.  The prose is faithful to Shakespeare; the plot is faithful to Star Wars.  Admittedly, the novelty of the idea wears a little thin by the end.  But, it's so much fun, I didn't care.  I desperately want to see a stage production.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue feels a lot like Chabon’s attempt to write a Dickens or Tolstoy novel. Although it takes place exclusively in Oakland, it has an epic, world-weary quality to it, as its characters pass in and out of each others’ lives through fate or coincidence. There’s a plot, mainly circling around the music store owned by Archy Stallings, a black man, and Nat Jaffe, a Jewish one, and a lot of subplots, the most interesting of which revolves around Luther Stallings, Archy’s father, a washed-up blaxploitation actor trying to finance a new film and reconnect with his very estranged son--but it doesn’t feel like Chabon is primarily interested in turning the narrative cogs. He’s clearly world-building here, trying to make a character of Oakland the same way Joyce did of Dublin in Ulysses, an acknowledged influence on Telegraph Avenue.

That said, a book with a meandering main plot needs to keep its focus on its most interesting characters, and Chabon sometimes does, sometimes doesn’t. It’s good when he’s spending  time with Julie Jaffe, Nat Jaffe’s gay son, and Titus Joyner, Archy Stallings’ illegitimate offspring, and when he’s showing Gwen, Archy’s wife, and her partner, Aviva, Nat’s wife, running their midwifery business, and when we’re with Luther Stallings, as mentioned earlier. Archy and Nat, on the other hand, never clicked with me, and although the fate of their record store is the linchpin for much of the books denouement, it never carried much weight. I don’t want to be hard on Telegraph Avenue, because I enjoyed it. At times, though, it felt like a 250 page novel trapped inside a 600 page tome.

There was one other thing that bothered me about the novel, and that is that, at times, it feels like Chabon is engaging in cultural appropriation for the novelty of it. Things like the black folks in the waiting room at the hospital saying, “Oh shit!’ when a confrontation occurs, or the extensive digressions, from Gwen’s mouth, about being black in America, or the unbelievably bad section told from Senator Barack Obama's point of view. It’s not that Chabon shouldn’t have written about these things (well, maybe the Obama POV should've been cut), just that they sometimes felt like they could have been handled better, more realistically, more sensitively... differently, at least. This isn't something that usually bothers me in novels, but I couldn't get away from it here, even if I can't quite articulate why.

There are moments of transcendence here--Chabon is a very good prose stylist most of the time. I particularly liked a section in the middle which self-consciously emulates the Penelope section of Ulysses, covering the entire town and all the ongoing plotlines in one, long sentence. Ironically it's here, where things should feel most excessive, that they feel most controlled, and that Chabon seems to wrest control of his book away from digressions and toward the main event. It's just too bad those moments are separated by so many pages.